Reforming marijuana laws before the holidays: A three-pronged approach

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Legalize and Regulate: That is the popular consensus in the United States when it comes to how Congress should reform federal marijuana laws. 

Forty-four percent of Americans currently live in a state that has legalized it already under state statute. Poll after poll finds that a supermajority of Americans, including outright majorities of Democratic, Republican, and Independent voters, support the full legalization of cannabis for adult use. In fact, Pew Research recently reported that 91 percent of voters oppose federal cannabis criminalization, with only 8 percent supporting the status quo. 

At this moment, both chambers of Congress are well-positioned to move forward with bipartisan cannabis proposals ahead of the holiday break. By doing so, members have a unique opportunity these next few weeks to advance a policy issue that drives conversations at the family dinner table in a manner that bridges traditional partisan divides. 

Put simply: Marijuana is popular; Congress is not. Passing marijuana policy reform is something members can do today to increase their favorability among voters of all political ideologies. 

There are three abundantly clear paths that Congress could take to comprehensively overhaul our nation’s failed experiment with prohibition — each of which could be accomplished before Congress goes into recess.

Appropriations 

Since 2014, members of Congress have passed the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (CJS) appropriations package with a provision protecting those who engage in the state-sanctioned use and dispensing of medical cannabis from federal prosecution by the Department of Justice. The existing language maintains that federal funds cannot be used to prevent states from “implementing their own laws authorizing the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.”

In the previous session of Congress, the House took action to expand these protections. Known as the bipartisan Blumenauer-McClintock-Norton-Lee amendment, the House sought to remove the word “medical” from the current language — thus extending these legal protections to both qualified patients and to adults, as well as to those licensed to participate in both the medical and adult-use industries. This language passed the House twice, with nearly every Democrat voting in favor and with 25 percent of the Republican caucus also advancing it. 

That’s it. All it takes is the removal of one word from the existing language and the federal government will be unable to interfere with any state’s marijuana legalization program.

When members of the two chambers come together in the conference committee to iron out the spending details, it would be appropriate for them to expand the existing protections by enacting the Blumenauer-McClintock-Norton-Lee amendment. 

SAFE Banking

The recently House-passed National Defense Authorization Act funding package includes the provisions of the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act (SAFE Banking Act), which allows state-licensed marijuana-related businesses to engage freely in relationships with banks and other financial institutions. 

This provision was passed on a voice vote in a bipartisan fashion as an amendment to the bill by Reps. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.), David Joyce (R-Ohio) and Steve Stivers (R-Ohio).

Currently, tens of thousands of state-licensed cannabis businesses are unable to partner with the banking industry due to federal prohibition. This means they are unable to accept credit cards, deposit revenues, access loans, or write checks to meet payroll or pay taxes. 

This situation is untenable as no industry can operate safely, transparently, or effectively without access to banks or other financial institutions. If enacted, state-legal marijuana programs and businesses would be able to operate more efficiently and entrepreneurs would have more access to capital streams, which would remove one of the biggest hurdles that currently prevent small businesses from being able to get a foothold in this new industry. Under the current climate, most of the credit being extended to smaller operators comes with strings attached to it, such as partial ownership agreements — making the environment more akin to a modern-day share-cropping scheme than a functional free market. 

The recent amendment vote marked the fifth time that House members have advanced SAFE Banking legislation in the last two years and now its fate will be decided as part of the conference committee process. 

Given that House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) is a cosponsor of the bill and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) represents a medical state which may pass a bill allowing adult use by the end of the year, it would be an appropriate step to take to enact SAFE Banking as swiftly as possible via inclusion in the final NDAA package. 

The MORE Act

Members of the House Judiciary Committee recently advanced the Marijuana, Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act, which would repeal marijuana prohibition. The MORE Act does so by removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, thereby ending the existing state/federal conflict in cannabis policies and providing state governments with greater authority to regulate marijuana-related activities — including retail sales, facilitating the expungement of low-level marijuana convictions, and incentivizing state and local governments to create pathways for ownership opportunities in the emerging industry for local and diversely-reflective entrepreneurs who have been impacted under prohibition through Small Business Administration grant eligibility. 

The bill has a legislative record of success, passing the full House last December with a bipartisan vote of 228-164 and is well-positioned to pass the full chamber yet again should it be given a floor vote by House leadership. 

Given that Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), along with Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) have released their own draft proposal to repeal prohibition, which largely includes the MORE Act, it would be prudent for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), along with Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) to again pass the act and demonstrate to the American public that congressional leadership can be responsive to the public’s overwhelming desire to see cannabis legalized. 

With the holidays upon us, why not arm our families with the proverbial “peace-pipe” as they gather around the dinner table? 

Ultimately, it would be political malpractice for congressional leadership to deny the opportunity for these conversations to bring aunts, uncles, cousins and other relatives together on an issue they all agree with: Legalizing marijuana.

Justin Strekal is the political director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), where he serves as an advocate to end the federal criminalization and prohibition of marijuana. Twitter: @justinstrekal.  

Tags Adam Smith Barbara Lee Charles Schumer Cory Booker David Joyce Earl Blumenauer Ed Perlmutter Jack Reed Nancy Pelosi Nydia Velazquez Ron Wyden Steny Hoyer Steve Stivers

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